PROVIDENCE — Before the pandemic, the new gun legislation airing at the House Judiciary Committee would draw hundreds to the State House — gun-rights advocates in yellow shirts, anti-gun violence demonstrators in red shirts — to testify passionately during a marathon session.
Though Friday afternoon’s hearing was held remotely due to COVID-19, more than 300 people signed up to be heard — and so many watched the hours-long proceedings that the streaming channel on Capitol TV kept crashing.
The 18 gun bills included perennial issues on either side of the gun debate: banning assault rifles and high-capacity magazines; banning guns on school grounds, except for law enforcement; barring open carry of long guns except while hunting; arming campus police; prohibiting straw purchases; making it a felony not to safely store guns; allowing people with concealed-carry rights in other states to also conceal carry in Rhode Island.
The heated division over guns started long before Friday’s session, as advocates on both sides urged their followers to bombard legislators with emails supporting certain bills and voting down others. Gun lobbyists urged supporters to rally outside the State House during the hearing, and at least one gun store closed early to do so.
The divisions were sharp. “The fact that we can’t stop all gun violence does not mean that we shouldn’t do things to save lives,” said East Greenwich Democratic Representative Justine Caldwell, a sponsor of bills to ban assault rifles and large-capacity magazines.
She said the bills are “overwhelmingly popular,” but added that she’d received frightening threats from some gun supporters.
“What I hear most is that we need a population that’s heavily armed as a check against government power, that they are preparing for a second civil war,” she said. “That if these laws pass, they will defy them, that they will come to my house and show me what an assault weapon will do.”
Burrillville Republican Representative David Place, one of the most outspoken on the committee in support of gun rights, held aloft a petition that he said was signed by more than 10,000 people against the gun legislation.
“These bills are motivated by a progressive agenda and blatantly focused on stripping law-abiding citizens of their rights and property and weakening the foundation of our country,” he said. “Firearms owners are portrayed as the enemy and as criminals and told they are the minority, when we are a valuable resource.”
The attorney general’s office, the Rhode Island State Police, and the Providence Police came out in favor of safe storage of weapons, banning large capacity magazines and assault weapons, and banning guns in schools, including for people with concealed-carry permits. State Police Captain Derek Borek said they were also concerned about people openly carrying long guns. “We have had great civil unrests at protests, at the State House and downtown Providence, and that would be a security concern to all involved,” he said.
Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven M. Pare said police have had to change their own weaponry, because they are being outgunned on the streets. Banning the assault weapons “will make our community safer,” he said.
“Even though we haven’t had a mass shooting, we shouldn’t wait for one,” Pare said.
The committee members who support gun rights, however, made it clear they didn’t believe the gun legislation would stop crime. Place and other representatives kept asking what difference the bills would have made in past shootings.
Several gun lobbyists also said that the criminals wouldn’t be deterred by the laws. They maintained that only law-abiding gun owners would have their rights constrained.
Pare, however, pointed out that recent legislation banning “ghost guns” was already being used to charge suspects. And he thanked the legislators for it.